Review: ‘Leaving Iowa’ by Providence Players of Fairfax

Providence Players of Fairfax presents Leaving Iowa, a touching comedy written by Tim Clue and Spike Manton, and directed by Julie Janson. A hilarious homage to the typical American family road trip, this delightfully nostalgic piece is a perfect way to welcome in the new season!

L-R: Amy Griffin, Lindsay June, Bobby Wells, and Michael Bagwell in 'Leaving Iowa' by Providence Players of Fairfax. Photo by Chip Gertzog.
L-R: Amy Griffin, Lindsey June, Bobby Wells, and Michael Bagwell in ‘Leaving Iowa’ by Providence Players of Fairfax. Photo by Chip Gertzog.

It’s Summer again, and for a lot of us, that means it’s time for a family vacation. This year Don Browning (Bobby Welsh) is returning his father’s ashes to his childhood home, where they used to visit every year. The familiar journey stirs up a lot of memories for Don–those of a young boy trapped in a stifling station wagon with his family for hours upon anguishing hours. “Our vacations were never fun,” says Don. “‘Fun’ was the family F word.” While Don reminisces on the hours of family bickering, sibling strife, and the slow torture of getting lost in America’s back roads, his memories are reflected from an adult’s outlook, and the wisdom that comes with it. With this perspective comes emotional revelations, wonder, hilarity, and regret. Don’s last road trip with his father is a study on familial love–the wholesome simplicity of it, as well as the complexities that tend to linger just out of sight.

Memory plays are a tall order for a production team, who need to find a way to seamlessly transition the past and the present, as well as switch between viewpoints on a dime without confusing the audience. Technical director Christopher Crockett manipulates lighting and sound to make these transitions seem effortless. The set, designed by Brian O’Connor and assisted by David Ranowsky, relies mainly on the front end of a station wagon that sits in front of a projection screen. The projections by Chip Gertzog provide the majority of the atmosphere, from the dullness of endless corn fields to the rush of terror from an oncoming semi. The projections are creative and effective–and serve as the real “vehicle” for this story.

The characters are almost achingly relatable; we have the corny Dad (Michael Bagwell), who uses phrases like “Heavens to Betsy!” and gets overexcited over an Alaska license plate (“now there’s a traveler!”), and his well-to-do wife who fusses over road snacks and always seems to be simmering on the edge of panic (Amy Griffin). Lindsey June is Sis, the infuriating younger sister who always seems to get away with everything with a smile and a smirk. Their collective banter is especially well-written, and a real joy to watch. We know and love these characters almost immediately because (if you were lucky enough), you knew/know someone just like them. The actors all do fantastic jobs with their roles, with multiple smaller characters shared by three actors; Danielle Comer, Michael Schwartz, and Charlene Sloan. Their characters, ranging from an obnoxious but well-meaning aunt and uncle and a diner waitress who talks a mile-a-minute, are quirky and fun, and add a lot of laughter to the show.

At face value, this play pokes fun at the typical American family dynamic; if you’ve ever been in a car with your family for more than two hours, you’ve experienced at least one of these laughable moments. It takes a look at what lies beneath; struggles that a lot of us can understand and sympathize with–the guilt and regret that many of us feel over things unsaid, motives unnoticed, and dedication underappreciated when it comes to family. No one seems to understand the true depth of what they have until it’s gone, and gratefulness comes once it’s too late to express. Underneath all of the laughter is a melancholy poignancy that we all share, and seeing it expressed onstage can be a very cathartic experience.

I loved every moment of Providence Players of Fairfax’s Leaving Iowa. Well written and expertly acted, it was a night of quality entertainment that I would highly recommend.  Catch a showing of this with your own family–you won’t regret it!

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

Leaving Iowa, presented by Providence Players of Fairfax, plays through June 15, 2019, at The James Lee Community Center Theater, 2855 Annandale Road, Falls Church, VA. For tickets, call (703) 425-6782 or order them online.